March 10, 2013

Why what you’re reading, right now, is bullshit

I have a tough time with the internet, on occasion – and I have a tough time with my generation, Gen Y, who grew up in the shadow of the internet and often seem to have difficulty imagining a world without it.

I especially have a tough time with the rising argument that, with the internet, all art can and should be free, and users of the art should become as patrons, tossing a coin into a bucket at the artist’s feet while on their way to work.

My real problem with this isn’t that this seems to defy common economics – a free thing, as we are so often told, has no value – nor is it that this could possibly further inequality. My real problem with this is that, as Chuck Wendig ably pointed out, in this sort of support structure, what is being marketed is not the Art, but the Artist.

In other words, we’re now in the age of “sharing,” and all artists are expected to provide a constant feed of their innermost personal lives, sharing every aspect of themselves, and the audience creates an intense personal connection not with the Art, but with the Artist, becoming a close, close friend that lives in the Artist’s pocket at all times. And because, y’know, you’re such close friends with the Artist, you feel obliged to buy their stuff.

But here’s the problem with that: it’s bullshit.

As we see time and time again, the connections we feel we make on the internet are often false: they’re often imagined, self-projected delusions that, when you try and enact them in real life, turn out to be wildly flimsy. It’s not unlike assuming the stripper at the strip club really feels something for you.

I, personally, can’t begin to describe the times that someone has found me in real life, assuming I would be the guy from the internet they thought I was, and both of us were, at best, weirdly disappointed.

In the worst occasions… Well. It can get pretty creepy, for me.

This is a cynical read of the audience, sure, but there’s plenty of burden on the Artist, too. I mean, think about what you’re reading right now – this is a blog. This is space on the internet that I can fill up with words, words that I choose.

Don’t ever forget that – what you’re seeing here is what I’m allowing you to see.

So, no, this is not the real me. For example, I can’t make crazy-ass off-color jokes on my blog, partially because I don’t want to, but also because someone, anyone, might get offended – and on the internet, being offended is like a precious drug. I definitely can’t discuss my political views because, frankly, that could piss off potential readers – readers I desperately, desperately need to keep. I don’t discuss all my doubts and fears and anxieties, both with my personal life and with the greater world, because A. that would be tedious to read, and also B. it could turn off lots of readers.

So, this is not me. This is my connection to you as A Writer of Published Works that You Could Buy – but it’s not me, Robert Bennett, who hasn’t showered today (long story) and really needs to weed the garden.

I can’t reiterate this enough: this is not me. Unless we have actually met and talked for more than 1 hour, in person, you probably do not know me.

Think about it this way: how much art – songs, stories, movies – are about people trying to find true love? How much art is about the unceasing chase for that real, genuine connection? How much art is about an established relationship where one of the parties doubts if that genuine connection is still there – Does my husband really even understand me anymore?

So, if it’s so hard to forge a genuine connection in real life – do you really think you’re going to find such a relationship purely on the fucking internet?!

But let’s say that both parties go ahead and encourage this, Artist and Audience proudly proclaiming, We’re all one big happy family. The issue is, these relationships are fraught with confusing expectations. Amanda Palmer, one of the biggest advocates for this new breed of support structure, encountered this problem herself, when she tried to launch Evelyn Evelyn, a sort of hoax/performance-art stunt that wound up upsetting many of her fans, since it seemed to exploit the disabled.

But if you look at the tone of the responses she got, many of them have deep undertones of betrayal: “I wouldn’t have expected this from you,” they seem to say. “I thought you were better than this. I thought I knew you!”

And here’s the problem – those fans didn’t actually know her. They thought they did, but they didn’t. So when she did something they didn’t expect, and didn’t want, that actually, personally hurt them.

This must have been tough to react to: because from my point of view, the Artist’s initial reaction would have been, “I don’t fucking know you people at all, so I don’t care what you think.” That’s the freedom of the artist. But, you can’t do that in this new support structure: these people are your friends. And you can’t share your genuine reactions of scorn with them, much as you can’t tell your spouse or best friend that you don’t give a shit about them or what they think.

This is the weirdo position this puts you in: you can’t tell any faction of your fandom that you don’t care what they think, because if you do, then all your other fans may wake up and realize they have no personal connection to you whatsoever. They’ll realize, in other words, that they don’t actually know you.

If you ain’t noticed, I do not endeavor to forge close personal relationships with you, dear readers. Rather, I try and have fun with this unreality a lot in my various internet efforts. Hell, look at my Twitter feed: yesterday I claimed to have once been imprisoned, and “inside” my name was Skinny Brisket, and I made a prized vintage of toilet wine called “butt slurry.” I’ve also claimed to be a shitty low-grade romance author, and in the next few days, you’ll see another video where I purport to be a disturbed, Truman Capote-esque, hillybilly author of teen girl mystery stories.

All of this is obviously untrue, but the funny part (if you find such things funny) is imagining that it might be true.

On the internet, anything could be true, and nothing could be.

I’m not really concerned about this new support structure, or Amanda Palmer, or any of that. What I’m concerned about is that this speaks of a characteristic apparently intrinsic to this new generation: the assumption that the internet is everywhere, and it is truth. In other words, the internet is noise, and we assume that, in this noise, all events and all things and all people can be found; it never strikes our minds, not once, that this noise might be just a chirp in a vast sea of silence, and that there might be more beneath those waves.